Archive for September 2010

Choosing Evils

20 September 2010

I’m in Budapest this week for a conference co-hosted by Google and Central European University– “Internet at Liberty 2010.” The highlight of this morning’s sessions was a “very short history of the internet and free expression” offered by Rob Faris of Harvard’s Berkman Center; I’d commend you to read Jillian York’s liveblog of that session if you’re curious. The highlight of the afternoon, and what I’ll reflect on, was a conversation looking at the challenges for the internet industry in dealing with the issues surrounding freedom of expression on the internet. In these questions of corporate policy lie much of the current struggle to ensure the free flow of information and freedom of expresion on the internet. And tension between these values and concerns of privacy, security and decency are driving much of the debate.

As Leslie Harris of Center for Democracy and Technology aptly put it in a comment, content hosts like Facebook are, in many ways, the “arbiters of free speech” in our technology-dense world. With the network becoming increasingly global, they often find themselves caught between protecting the value of free speech and obeying the rule of law– what’s free speech in one place might be libelous, or obscene, or just downright felonious somewhere else. So when one country comes to Facebook with a request that they remove some piece of content, Facebook has to make a choice. A choice that Lord Richard Allan, Facebook’s head of European Privacy, describes as choosing the lesser of two evils.

Illustrating one of the evils Facebook has chosen was the scandal earlier this year around the Facebook group “Draw Mohammed Day.” Despite the Pakistani government’s demands to eliminate the group, Facebok deemed it a legitimate expression of free speech. As the inevitable consequence, Pakistan blocked access to all of Facebook for a period of days. In the end, Facebook and the Pakistani government both earned the ire of different groups.

But there have been other instances in which Facebook has chosen to censor content– the conversation today took a zany turn today for a case study on breastfeeding. In the United States, it turns out, breastfeeding in public is against the law. And in compliance with the law, Facebook has taken down thousands of photos of women breastfeeding– including many photos taken outside the U.S., and submitted by users living outside the U.S. But because they’re accessible in the U.S., Facebook won’t host the photos; they could be sued if they did.

It’s certainly a curious position for a company to be in, making decisions about what constitutes free speech and what’s over the line. And it can surely become an uncomfortable position when they make a controversial call. But what’s the altnerative?  The role of the intermediary– Facebook, in this case– is one of the toughest questions for people working on these issues, and incorporates huge concerns about privacy and security. I’m looking forward to more of this discussion tomorrow.  Check back here for more in-depth recap and analysis…

(Unrelated, I was on the radio today– AM 1500 in DC– talking about digital diplomacy. Enjoy.)



New Paper on “Internet Freedom” & “21st Century Statecraft”

10 September 2010

Hot off the inter-presses today is a new paper from NDN & the New Policy Institute by yours truly looking at the State Department’s “21st Century Statecraft” and “Internet Freedom” initiatives. The paper is more overview than analysis– something I decided was necessary after reading the July essay on digital diplomacy in Foreign Affairs that I took down in a blog post and then delicately deconstructed for Foreign Policy. From the executive summary:

Not intended to be comprehensive or critical, this paper attempts to define and clarify these initiatives and the arguments supporting them, and offer a platform for further debate. These are new, evolving but crucially important issues, and informed conversation about the role of technology in our world is critical if these technologies are to be a positive force in history.

I mean, right? The hope is that this paper will be a resource for people new to these issues, and a fact-based starting point for further debate.  So here it is. Enjoy.



21st Century Statecraft, a Poor Choice of Words, and How Much that Matters

7 September 2010

I know I’m not the only one glad to have Evgeny Morozov back from the Belarusian forest and his poking, prodding skepticism back in the blogosphere– I missed having his posts as fodder to disagree with, and my blood pressure has felt a little low in recent months. His critique last week of Haystack, the much-ballyhood secret censorship-evading software developed by Austin Heap, though almost too snarky to take seriously, leveled serious criticism and raised good questions about a project that has received a lot of press and praise. But his latest contribution, The 20th Century Roots of the 21st Century Statecraft, is a little lite.

Morozov’s basic critique is, first, that the tech folks in the government are a little too chummy with the tech industry people. Fair enough. It is surprising that more people haven’t ended up in hot water for the very close relationships between a few select tech firms and the federal government. It may yet cause problems– both political and, as Evgeny points out, for the implementation of our foreign policy.

In the second half of his post, though, things get weird. Evgeny warns of ill-defined “spillover effects” that will follow from pursuing “21st Century Statecraft” and “Internet Freedom.” Because Twitter won’t solve all manner of non-digital foreign policy problems, he argues, these new strategies are likely to corrode the rest of foreign policymaking, and the State Departments new “utopian agenda” will distract from the real business at hand.

This doesn’t really make much sense, and I think Evgeny senses this, as he keeps backing away from his snarkier rhetoric, to the position that the real problem is a failure to communicate.  That is, his main issue seems to be that “Internet Freedom” and “21st Century Statecraft” are just bad labels. Which they are, I’d say. The phrase “internet freedom” has been widely hijacked to mean everything from Twitter-fuelled regime change to net neutrality; a more apt definition for the State Department’s stated ambitions would be “freedom of expression on the internet.” Bad name? Yeah, probably. Utopian agenda that will overwhelm all other forms of diplomacy? Nuh uh.

All this is made weirder by the fact that, in closing, Morozov pines for “A much more important and far-reaching global debate about the future of foreign policy in the digital era.” With her speech on Internet Freedom in January, Secretary Clinton probably did more to broaden the debate about foreign policy in the digital era than anybody else could have.  Yes, State’s work has spun off a lot of tangential, even unhelpful side conversations– that’s to be expected. But I’d say the sort of side-swipes Morozov takes at State in this post are equally unhelpful in advancing a broad global debate about international affairs in a digital age. Language matters, but getting hung up on a few bad labels doesn’t get us anywhere.